04 December 2023

A paper on JD Bernal
and his Jewish ancestry
in the latest edition of
the ‘Old Limerick Journal’

The cover of the Winter 2023 ‘Old Limerick Journal’ pays tribute to the late Jim Kemmy

Patrick Comerford

My missed flights last week meant I missed the launch in Dublin of Christmas and the Irish, the new, book edited by friend and colleague, Professor Salvador Ryan of Maynooth. This seasonally-appropriate book, published in time for all good Christmas shopping lists, was launched in the Royal Irish Academy.

I also missed the launch in Limerick last week of the 2023 edition of the Old Limerick Journal. It was launched on Friday 1 December in Dooradoyle Branch Library by Councillor Dan McSweeney, Deputy Mayor of Limerick City and County.

The journal is edited by Tom Donovan and published by the Limerick Museum at the Old Franciscan Friary on Henry Street, Limerick.

My eight-page paper, ‘The Sephardic family roots and heritage of John Desmond Bernal, Limerick scientist,’ is on pp 60-66 and is illustrated with two pages of 10 photographs, including photographs I have taken of places associated with Bernal’s ancestors in Córdoba, Venice, London, Limerick and Nenagh.

John Desmond Bernal (1901-1971) was one of the most interesting and important Irish-born scientists of the twentieth century. He was a crystallographer, molecular physicist, social scientist, committed Communist, campaigner for world peace, and friend of Pablo Picasso.

In my paper, I trace the ancestors of this family, who were Sephardic Jews who lived in Venice from at least the mid-17th century, and before that they had lived in the Ancona area of southern Italy for many generations. The family moved through Amsterdam to London, and Jacob arrived in Ireland in the 1840s from London.

I also tell how I came across the family stories almost by accident. I was interested in two brothers, Henry (Harry) William John Comerford (1874-1958) and Albert (Bert) Alfred George Comerford (1879-1973), who had married two sisters, Rosina Sarah Sipple (1881-1958) and Agnes Violet Sipple (1884-1965).

The sisters Rosina and Agnes Comerford were descended from a long line of Sephardic families, associated for many generations with the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London. One hunch led to another, as is so often the case in genealogical research, and within weeks of visiting the Jewish quarter in Seville, I ended up tracing a very long-tailed family with links to Jewish communities throughout Europe.

My research on John Desmond Bernal was first presented at lunchtime lectures in the Hunt Museum, Limerick, on 11 February 2020, and in Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, on 18 May 2021 (https://youtu.be/kx0OIY2J4oU).

The latest edition of the Old Limerick Journal was launched last week, and I hope the responses to my story of JD Bernal’s Sephardic ancestry garners support for my belief that Limerick needs a Jewish Walking Trail, like those in many European cities.

In other contributions to this edition of the Old Limerick Journal:

Caroline Graham looks at the 1901 census data on the Limerick Workhouse;

John Carroll continues his series on the Roman Catholic clergy of Saint John’s Parish;

George Lee writes about Mount Saint Lawrence Mortuary Chapel and Crypt;

John Hanamy tells the story of Peter Lacey in Crimea, one of Limerick’s ‘Wild Geese’;

John Curin has a biographical note on Canon Frederick Langbridge, the last Rector of Saint John’s, Limerick;

Interesting photographs from Askeaton illustrate Clem Cusack’s essay on the decline of the Earls of Desmon in Elizabethan Ireland;

Denis O’Shaughnessy shares childhood memories in Corbally;

Des Ryan recalls a peculiar incident in Pretoria in 1903.

There are papers too by Mike Roycroft, Brian Hodkinson and Niamh Lenehan.

Two years ago, one of my photographs of Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, featured as the front cover illustration the Winter 2021 edition of the Old Limerick Journal (No 56), with a complimentary credit and description of me inside on the title page.

The Old Limerick Journal was founded in 1979 by the late Jim Kemmy TD, who was also instrumental in restoring and renovating Limerick’s Jewish Cemetery in Castletroy. Appropriately, the cover of this latest edition of the Old Limerick Journal is a tribute to its founder, with Jack Donovan’s 1990s portrait, now in the Limerick City Gallery of Art.

Meanwhile, Jim Kemmy’s life and legacy is explored in a new book, A Job of Journeywork, published by the Limerick Writers’ Centre and co-edited by Dr Derek Mulcahy of Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, and Dominic Taylor, a graduate of MIC.

The book spans Kemmy’s writings, ranging from the 1960s to his death in 1996, and tells of his transformative journey from a local activist to a nationally recognised and respected political luminary. He established a monthly newspaper, the Limerick Socialist in 1972, launched the Old Limerick Journal in 1979, and published many books on local history in Limerick.

• ‘The Sephardic family roots and heritage of John Desmond Bernal, Limerick scientist,’ pp 60-66 in ‘The Old Limerick Journal’, ed Tom Donovan (Limerick: Limerick Museum, ISBN: 9781916294394, 72 pp), No 58, Winter 2023, €10.

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